Sometimes I sit down to think about things I haven’t covered yet in this column and just end up kicking myself for leaving something out for so long. Granted, I’ve only been doing this for about a year at this point, but sometimes that little comics nerd voice in my head just shouts “You idiot! You’ve been doing this for MONTHS and you haven’t covered THAT? You have no credibility! Give up now!” This is one of those times. If you’re talking about superhero comics published any time in the last decades (hell, the last three decades), you have to talk about Gail Simone and Nicola Scott’s Secret Six. Not only is it important work from two very visible female comics creators (and yes, that really does matter), it’s also an essential and ridiculously fun comic book.
Spinning off from two limited series (Villains United and Secret Six, both written by Simone) that featured many of the same characters and concepts, Secret Six follows a team of morally dubious characters (some of them traditionally villains) as they carry out mercenary missions. The team includes both previously existing DC characters like Bane and Catman and brand new Simone co-creations like Rag Doll and Scandal Savage. It’s the perfect setup for an action-driven series that also packs plenty of morally complex character moments, and Simone takes every opportunity to deliver both.
In “Unhinged,” the first seven-issue arc of the ultimately 36-issue series (canceled ahead of the New 52 relaunch), the team finds themselves working to acquire a mysterious metal card belonging to a monstrous and mysterious creature known only as Junior. And here’s the thing: Junior really wants that card back (it has…special properties, let’s say), so a whole mass of other supervillains have been hired to get it as well, and as an added incentive a multi-million dollar bounty’s been placed on the heads of each member of Secret Six.
The plot definitely works, but what makes Secret Six such a joy to read is character. Simone has a knack for fully forming her heroes (and villains) that few other modern comics writers can ever hope for, and that’s not an exaggeration. The dialogue is among the most pitch-perfect in any comic book you’ll ever read (and I’m including comparisons to the likes of Joss Whedon, Brian K. Vaughan and Warren Ellis in that statement), and the result is a book that makes you hang on every word balloon just as much as the action in the panel. But it’s about more than just entertainment. Simone has long been an outspoken advocate for and defender of diversity in comics, and she’s also one of the most powerful enactors of it. She understands superheroes. She knows how to make them work whether they’re classic or brand-new, gay or straight, male or female. A Gail Simone book isn’t just a book about displaying diversity. It’s a book the makes that diversity work in the context of comic book superheroes. She does more than stand up for it. She demonstrates how to make it successful, and that’s perhaps even more important. It makes Secret Six more than just a fun comic. It’s a lesson in how comics in the 21st century should be.
All that is backed up by Scott’s remarkably expressive art. There’s something classical about her style, like picking up a really good book from the ’80s or early ’90s, and yet it never feels like a throwback. Look at how she draws Rag Doll with his crazy angles and wonderfully emotive face. More impressive still is the way she draws Bane, full of vulnerability and yet always possessed of unspeakable power. It’s those kind of contradictions captured in the panels that make her art stand out.
Secret Six is essential reading for superhero fans for all these reasons and more, but the best recommendation I can give it is this: You’ll never have more fun than this with a superhero book. You might think others pack a better story or more compelling characters, and that’s fine, but the art, the dialogue, the pacing, the storytelling choices that fill this book make for something so thoroughly entertaining that I have trouble imagining any comics fan walk away unsatisfied.